Speech by Prof. dr hab Jadwiga Kuczyńska-Kwapisz,
pro-rector of the Maria Grzegorzewska College for Special Education in Warsaw.

Opening session, Sunday 9 July 2000, 15.00 - 17.00


Education of blind and visually impaired children in Poland

In my presentation I am going to discuss the following three issues: first, I will present the history of education of visually impaired pupils in Poland; then, I will talk about the present situation and, finally, I will outline the tendencies for the future.

The history of the first forms of education of blind children in our country dates back to the 19th century, the difficult period when Poland was under partitions. It was Rev. J. Falkowski who initiated the teaching of Polish blind children enrolling them, a few at a time, at the Institute for the Deaf-Mute in Warsaw. Later the first class was organized. At the same time, the Institute changed its name to the Institute for the Deaf-Mute and Blind. At the beginning only boys were accepted; it took thirty-two years before girls were able to attend. The students were taught to read and write, first with the linear raised alphabet, and then from 1864 - the Braille alphabet. Musical education was developed. People responsible for educating children tried to extend their care beyond the time their pupils spent at school. Therefore, the Society of Blind Musicians was founded. It helped its members rent flats, find jobs, and it gave relief funds.

Chronologically, the second institute for the Polish blind children was the Institute for the Blind in Lwów which was founded by the Count Wincenty Zaremba - Skrzyński, who wanted to commemorate his blind son. This institute began its activities in 1851.

Education there lasted for six years and children were taught to read, write and count, they studied the history of Poland and Austria, botany, zoology. Musical classes were developed: children were taught to play the violin, the piano, the organ. Vocational training was also introduced: girls learnt basketry, knitting and crochet work and boys learnt brush-making, plaiting mats as well as weaving baskets. The mission of the institute was to prepare the young people for independent life, especially to enable them to live in the world outside. The school still exists, not in Poland, though, but in Ukraine.

In Wolsztyn, in the Prussian partition, in 1853 another institute for the blind was created. It was later transferred to Bydgoszcz. Gifted pupils were prepared for the job of organist and piano tuner, whereas others learnt basketry, brush-making, upholstery or massage.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries there were only 200 blind Polish children in organized institutes. The needs exceeded highly that number but were met only to a small degree.

That situation was due to a few factors, namely: the above-mentioned period was the beginning of special education not only in Poland but worldwide, too. There was not any idea concept how to educate the blind. The social and political conditions were unfavorable - Poland was partitioned and each of the above-mentioned schools was located in a different educational system. In addition, most children were not able to study in their mother tongue.

At the beginning of the 20th century Róża Czacka was the person who worked out the concept which widely accounted for problems of the blind as well as for their education. She lost her sight at the age of 22 and she considered it a challenge to take up the issue of the blind in Poland. Róża Czacka was very conscientious in her preparations for the realization of the aim she had set. She used the achievements of other countries, more advanced in the education of the blind. She visited educational centres in France, Switzerland and Austria. In pursue of her idea she founded the Society for the Care of the Blind. From the moment it was founded until the First World War, the Society organized care for the families of the blind, set up an office for re-writing books, organized an institute for blind girls, a school for boys, a kindergarten, and a department of typhlology which kept in touch with similar organisations in Europe, imported publications and educational aids.

After the independence of Poland in 1918, the neglected educational sector started to be seen to again. Soon establishments for blind children were developed. In 1918 Róża Czacka founded the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters Servants to the Cross /Zgromadzenie Sióstr Franciszkanek Służebnic Krzyża/ whose mission was and still is to work for the blind. In 1922 she initiated the construction of the institute for the Blind in Laski near Warsaw. She set an educational ideal before her colleagues, which was to aim at the full development of the intellectual potential, abilities and talents of the blind. At the Laski schools she managed to bring up a pioneer generation of blind people who were rehabilitated and socially active.

At the same time professor Maria Grzegorzewska was the one who did scientific research in education and rehabilitation of the blind in Poland. Undoubtedly, one of the best known and valued scientific achievements of the years between the First and the Second World War was the work "Psychology of the Blind" by Maria Grzegorzewska. There were used two volumes of them, the second burnt during the Warsaw Uprising, the first luckily survived. The author assumed that the basis for pedagogy of the blind was psychology, therefore she took up research aimed at explanation of cognitive processes in people who were totally blind from birth. Grzegorzewska conducted research which was important for the theory and practice of pedagogy and focused on adapting O. Decroly's method of interest centres to the methodology of work with blind children in their first years of education. She started a magazine called "Special School" where she published her own theoretical works. She also founded a Teacher Training School which was first called the State Institute for Special Pedagogy in Warsaw, later it was given the rank of a College and named after its founder - the Maria Grzegorzewska College for Special Education. For nearly eighty years now teachers and -rehabilitation workers have been prepared to work with blind and visually impaired people. In recognition of the college's scientific and didactic achievements, the Parliament of the Polish Republic passed a resolution which turns the College into the Maria Grzegorzewska Academy for Special Education. The new name shall be used starting September 2000.

I believe that both scientific research and practical applications of theory into education and rehabilitation of the blind and visually impaired have solid grounds in Poland. The past and the present meet. The work started by Róża Czacka and prof. Grzegorzewska continues into the present and future, continuously developed by generations.

Cooperation with other countries has always been important for the development of new methods. I would like to mention here the names of two people who have influenced the direction of developments in education and rehabilitation of the blind and visually impaired in Poland. Twenty-one years ago prof. Stanley Suterko of Michigan University arrived in Poland. After hearing his presentation on the concept of preparing the blind for independence, we changed our ways of mobility training and our concept of rehabilitation. The other person, who came a little later, is dr Herman Gresnigt. He changed our attitude towards "early intervention".

Today the Polish Association for the Blind has 77 thousand members including over 6 thousand children. Pupils with limited vision can attend mainstream "integration" schools as well as "special" schools. We have 10 large educational centres: in Bydgoszcz, Dąbrowa Górnicza, Kraków, Laski near Warsaw, Lublin, Łódź, Owińska near Poznań, Radom, Warszawa and Wrocław. There are also a few smaller rehabilitation units mainly for children and blind teenagers with combined disabilities. We are implementing the whole new system of education, the reform of which assumes development of early intervention - supporting the child and his/her family, popularizing the integration system, involving the parents into the decision-making process concerning the choice of school, introduction of new information technologies, especially introducing computers and making internet available. Such technologies are both a challenge and an opportunity. They are challenging as the necessity of getting to know them is becoming obvious - one cannot imagine life in the 21st century without them. The opportunities they offer lie in enabling the blind to broaden their knowledge, enhancing rehabilitation process, helping to learn new jobs, shaping the habits of lifelong studying. The teacher training system is changing systematically. Until recently at The Maria Grzegorzewska College for Special Education, we have been mainly concerned with the methodology of educating blind and visually impaired children, whereas now we are developing methods for working with people of different ages. Our programme to a larger and larger extent comprises various rehabilitation techniques: early intervention, vision rehabilitation, orientation and mobility, activities of daily living, computer assisted education and rehabilitation. All these programme modules listed above result in facilitating integration.

The Polish Association for the Blind offers significant assistance to the blind. It is active all over Poland. Its structure corresponds to the administrative division of our country and consists of 16 districts. The Association runs a library, possesses valuable collections of literature, issues specialist publications, does translation work of foreign literature, runs rehabilitation for newly blinded people and for people with additional problems such as diabetes, deafness, motor limitations and others. It prints textbooks at the recommendation of the Ministry of Education.

Financial support for the blind is provided by the State Fund for the Rehabilitation of the Blind. A lot of schools take advantage of the fund when purchasing computer equipment. A programme called "A computer for Homer", which is in operation now, enables blind schoolchildren and students to buy computer equipment inexpensively.

Before I tell you about the visions for the future, I shall go back to the time when I started my career at the School for Blind Children at Laski in the early seventies. What was a typical life story of a blind person? The usual scheme was like that: a blind baby is born, the parents seek help with doctors, ophthalmologists, healers. They are alone, feel abandoned and completely helpless. When the child is three years old they are told about a special kindergarten with a boarding house. They suffer, but they mean well for their child, they cannot see any other possibilities, so they decide to leave their son or daughter in the hands of professionals. The kid cries, the parents suffer, and the programme allows for one visit a month. Slowly everybody gets accustomed to the situation, but at the same time the child and the parents "get disaccustomed" from each other. Education continues in a special primary school with a boarding house, of course, even for those who live close to the school. Next a vocational boarding school could be considered where one could learn brush making, knitting, metal-work, followed by a job at a cooperative of the blind, living in a hostel room or a flat in a special rehabilitation housing campus. On the one hand, such an approach ensured a safe lifestyle of low standard, though, it also gave a feeling of small stabilisation, but on the other hand, it separated the child from his/her family and local people, lead to loneliness with all its consequences like alcoholism, conflicts, passivity, depression, lack of sense in life.

Fortunately, there have always been groups of very active people among the blind who never let anybody force them into the above-described pattern, groups of educators who broke conventions and used methods that stimulated individual development in blind pupils, or groups of dissatisfied, seeking parents who believed their children had better potential than they had been told they had. Therefore we have examples of then pupils who are successful today, lead satisfying lives, are well-educated, independent, creative, and are able to adapt perfectly well to the present economic situation of our country. The experience gained and the achieved results allow for new challenges to be taken.

Strategies for the coming century should account for:

Through the above-listed actions we try to avoid the repetition of the pattern of life so common in the 70s, trying to offer a wider choice, help seize new opportunities; we can enjoy more and more frequent success. Let us imagine: a blind or a visually impaired child is born, from the very moment of discovering the disability, the parents receive assistance from an interdisciplinary team. The child stays with the family and the specialists stimulate his/her development through tactful advice given to the parents at home or during rehabilitation camps organized for families with children. At various stages of education starting with the kindergarten through primary school, middle school and high school, the child if necessary changes between the integration to the special education systems depending on his/her own decision or the one of his/her parents'. At every stage of education specialist assistance suitable to the present needs of a pupil is available. The parents are deeply involved in what is happening to their child in the area of his/her education, independence, rehabilitation. Irrelevant of the system of education, the pupil is prepared to lead an independent life and encouraged to shape his/her own future. Apart from lessons binding for all, he/she studies braille, computers, receives mobility training, learns how to face everyday activities etc. The choice of a career and lifestyle is similar to the choice their sighted peers have, they can enjoy various possibilities.

One can imagine a blind person doing computer telework for a bank. Owing to the Internet he/she has access to information from all over the world, lots of friends and belongs to several support systems worldwide. He/she does computer shopping with the latter delivered to his/her place. He/she uses a completely automated microwave which can read the stripe codes on each product and heats food accordingly. He/she lives with his/her family and lives an active, satisfying life.
I trust that life shall prepare similar life scenarios, and others, much more interesting ones.

Address:
The Maria Grzegorzewska
College for Special Education
Ul. Szczesliwicka 40
02-353 Warsaw, Poland


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